Matt C. Abbott
On Vatican II's (deliberate?) ambiguities
By Matt C. Abbott
June 13, 2013

The following is a brief interview with respected priest-theologian Father Brian Harrison, O.S., whose curriculum vitae can be seen below the interview. Thanks to Father Harrison for taking the time to answer my questions.

1. Do you agree with Cardinal Walter Kasper's fairly recent assertion (source) about the intentional ambiguities inserted into the Vatican II documents?

Father Harrison: I think the question is based on an inaccurate premise. Kasper didn't in fact say there were intentional ambiguities. That expression suggests a concerted plan to deliberately draft propositions with double meanings. But this is not what Kasper means by the term "compromise formulas." What he does mean is made clear in the rest of what he says, especially the expressions underlined below:

"In many places, [the Council Fathers] had to find compromise formulas, in which, often, the positions of the majority are located immediately next to those of the minority, designed to delimit them. Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict, open the door to a selective reception in either direction."

In other words, Kasper is just saying that minority viewpoints were often juxtaposed with majority ones, so as to somehow balance each other enough to gain a consensus vote. That doesn't amount to intentional ambiguity. Moreover, in no case, as far as I am aware, do such contrasting conservative/liberal statements actually contradict each other. They are more in the nature of contrasting emphases.

As Cardinal Kasper says, they are open to "selective reception in either direction," and for that reason they do indeed have "a huge potential for conflict." But the source of the conflict was not in intentional ambiguities on the part of the drafting committees, but the simple fact of serious divisions of theological viewpoint among the Fathers themselves, and among theologians who later commented on the documents. However, this is scarcely a stunning or shocking revelation.

Church leaders and scholars right across the spectrum have always recognized and acknowledged this discrepancy of views among the Council Fathers and the resulting ambivalence of some of the documents. It's common knowledge. I don't know of any serious scholar who's been claiming that the true meaning of the Vatican II teachings that have proved controversial is always crystal clear. That's what Michael Voris said [in this report] liberal Church leaders and scholars have been claiming for decades prior to Kasper's recent statement; yet he cites no examples.

No less than Pope John Paul II, in his 1988 Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei, called on scholars to devote "deeper study" to the council documents so that new conciliar developments in doctrine that have "not always been well understood" can be better explained.

There we had an admission straight from the Vicar of Christ, a quarter-century before Kasper's comments, that the Vatican II teachings are not always crystal clear in meaning. A similar lack of clarity was likewise tacitly acknowledged in Benedict XVI's now-famous Christmas 2005 speech in which he recognized conflicting possible (and actual) interpretations of the council documents, and so called for a "hermeneutic of continuity" rather than one of rupture and discontinuity.

2. If the ambiguities and/or apparent contradictions do indeed exist in the Vatican II documents, how could that be, given the Church's traditional teaching that an ecumenical council (even one that's pastoral in nature like Vatican II) is guided by the Holy Spirit and thus protected from error?

Father Harrison: First, ambiguities in council documents are, as such, not errors, and so the question about the Holy Spirit's protection of councils from error doesn't apply. In fact, obscurities or uncertainties in the meaning of papal and conciliar teachings are nothing new in Church history. That's one reason why Christ has given us a living Magisterium, so that earlier magisterial statements can be clarified, when necessary, by later ones.

Think of the differing interpretations there have been of the Council of Florence's infallible teaching that "outside the Church there is no salvation"; or of the same council's infallible definition that "the souls of those who die in original sin only . . . go down without delay into hell (mox in infernum descend[unt])," where, however, they suffer "different punishments (poenis disparibus)." Some interpreters affirm, and others deny, that this means infants who die without baptism are excluded from heaven (the beatific vision). The list could go on. In fact, the idea that, prior to Vatican II, no ecumenical councils had any ambiguous or obscure teachings – that all was crystal clear – is basically a myth. To the objection that in those earlier councils this wasn't intentional, I would reply by referring to my response to question number one above.

Second, the term "apparent contradictions" means what are in reality non-contradictions, so once again the question about the Holy Spirit's guarantee of protection from error is not relevant. But are there real doctrinal contradictions within the documents? I don't believe so. However, it also needs to be said that, in any case, there is no Catholic doctrine that says everything taught by an ecumenical council is 100 percent guaranteed to be protected from error, i.e., infallible.

All approved traditional theologians have recognized that the infallibly proposed parts of ecumenical council documents have to be carefully identified by their more solemn form of wording and distinguished from less authoritative teachings. Less solemn conciliar statements – "authentic" but non-infallible teaching – will have an overwhelming probability or even moral certainty of being true – 99 percent plus, let's say – but not an absolute 100 percent guarantee of being protected from error.

The Church's current official Profession of Faith, promulgated with the authority of John Paul II in 1989, recognizes three categories of Catholic doctrine: The first two are infallible and the third is merely "authentic" teaching requiring a "religious submission for mind and will," but not the absolute irrevocable assent due to infallible teachings. The latter can be either revealed dogmas (first category) or doctrines "to be held definitively" (second category, which includes, for instance, the intrinsic immorality of contraception and the reservation of priestly ordination to men).

3. Should traditionalists just accept Vatican II and "move on," so to speak?

Father Harrison: I think all faithful Catholics should accept Vatican II, understood within the perspective of the aforesaid "hermeneutic of continuity."

Of course, there are traditionalists, notably leaders of the Society of St. Pius X, who maintain that some conciliar statements unambiguously contradict traditional doctrine, and so simply cannot be read in continuity with the latter. Their most commonly cited example is the council's teaching on religious freedom. In a newly published book-length debate – with a non-believer who nevertheless agrees with the SSPX that Dignitatis Humanae contradicts traditional doctrine – I have argued in detail that an honest "hermeneutic-of-continuity" reading of Dignitatis Humanae is indeed possible. For more information and to order the book, click here.

4. What is the best way to fight liberalism in the Church?

Father Harrison: Pray, strive for holiness, study, be outspoken but respectful – but don't simply reject Vatican II teachings. Pray especially for the pope and for bishops who will be strong enough to exercise and restore firm Church discipline, even if that means facing furious opposition and getting lambasted by the media. Read about the pontificate of Pope St. Gregory VII, a true and courageous reformer of Church discipline.

The Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., a priest of the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom, is an emeritus professor of theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce. He has had lengthy pastoral experience in the city of Ponce, including the pastorate of a parish, a prison chaplain, and a Defender of the Bond for Puerto Rico's marriage tribunals.

He was born in Australia and, after being raised as a Presbyterian, converted to the Catholic Faith in 1972. In 1979 he began studies for the priesthood in the major seminary of Sydney. After completing his licentiate in theology at the Angelicum in Rome, he was ordained a priest in Saint Peter's Basilica in 1985 by His Holiness Pope John Paul II. In 1997 he gained his doctorate in systematic theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Athenæum (now University) of the Holy Cross in Rome.

Since 2007 Father Harrison has been scholar-in-residence at the Oblates of Wisdom house of studies in St. Louis, Mo. Since January 2012 he has also been the chaplain of St. Mary of Victories Chapel. He is the author of three books and over 120 articles.

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 'Unsolved' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other media outlets. In 2005 and 2006, he was among the first writers to expose former cardinal Theodore McCarrick's abuse of power with and sexual harassment of seminarians. He can be reached at

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